Michigan State was looking to avoid an 0-and-2 start against the ACC this season in the final of the PK80 Victory Bracket in Portland on Sunday evening.
Instead, the Spartans pounded the North Carolina Tar Heels, 63-45, in a game that was never was in doubt and solidified the team’s top five ranking early in 2017-18.
Tom Izzo’s team was led by Joshua Langford, who dropped a career-high 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and Miles Bridges, who battled foul trouble in the first half but finished with 11 points. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels had just one player in double figures, as Theo Pinson put up 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting.
Joel Berry II hit a long three that cut Michigan State’s lead down to four and could’ve sparked a momentum shift heading into the second half. But it wasn’t meant to be on this night for Roy Williams’ unit as the Tar Heels shot just 25 percent from the field, six percent from three and turned the ball over 16 total times.
Michigan State will now flip the script to another ACC opponent in Notre Dame on November 30 at 7 p.m. ET. North Carolina will also compete in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and will face Michigan on November 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
1. Michigan State was off the charts good defensively
The Spartans allowed 88 points in their loss to Duke in the Champions Classic, but on Sunday evening, they completely shut down another top 10 ACC opponent. MSU limited the Tar Heels to 15-of-61 shooting (!!), allowed only one made three and kept a team that thrives on a fast pace out of transition.
Most impressively, Michigan State had seven blocks and limited Luke Maye and Berry, UNC’s two top players, to eight and seven points respectively. Maye shot a lousy 3-of-13 from the field and Berry was even worse, as he went 2-of-11 and 1-of-6 from three.
You cannot play much better than MSU did on the defensive end on Sunday evening.
2. Langford is molding into a more complete player
Langford came to East Lansing with an offensive game that was limited beyond spotting up for perimeter jumpers. Because of his lack of versatility on that end of the court, the guard was wildly inconsistent during his freshman campaign, averaging only 6.9 points per game.
In year two, Langford is not only showing off his shooting touch from the perimeter, but he has shown an improved ability to attack the basket off the bounce.
Against the Tar Heels, Langford scored a career-high 23 points and showed more creativity that could give the Spartans’ offense a different dimension as the season moves along.
Don’t get me wrong, the Huntsville, AL native is not an all-around unworldly offensive player just yet, but he was the best player on the court in a game between two top 10 schools.
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten and college basketball in general because the Spartans have yet another weapon to pair with Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.
3. UNC’s front court looked awfully young
North Carolina lost Tony Bradley, Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks off last year’s National Championship team. That’s a lot of size, length, strength, front court power and rebounding ability.
This season, the Tar Heels are relying on a former walk-on in Maye (who has been superb this year) and three freshmen, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman and Garrison Brooks. As talented as the three freshmen are, they don’t have the experience that the Spartans’ bigs have at the college level. And as surprisingly great as Maye has been this year, he certainly doesn’t have the physical tools of Nick Ward and Gavin Schilling or the athleticism and length of Bridges and Jackson.
UNC’s front court looked overwhelmed as they were out-rebounded by 16 and allowed 14 offensive rebounds. They couldn’t defend or score on Ward (seven points, eight rebounds and four blocks) consistently enough and were outplayed when Bridges slid down to the four position.
Michigan State is just deeper, more experienced and tougher in the painted area.
4. Berry and Maye must play a whole lot better
We already went over the brutal stats that Berry and Maye had on Sunday night.
But to make things short and sweet, these two need to play a whole lot better if North Carolina is going to reach their potential.
We will chalk this performance up as an off-night against an elite defensive team. However, this cannot happen moving forward.
Berry is being counted on as the leader of this team at the point guard position. He is not only expected to get UNC into their sets and help the offense run smoothly, but he needs to score from both the perimeter and the interior. He’s the only true shot creator on this team and by far, their most experience player.
Maye is the anchor of a UNC front court that is integrating new pieces and making adjustments on the fly without Bradley, Hicks and Meeks. He cannot create his shot at the level of Berry and he won’t produce at the level he did against Arkansas the other day, however, he needs to be much more efficient and effective.
Tonight, Michigan State’s best players significantly out-played North Carolina’s, so it’s easy to see why they were run off the court.
5. The Spartans have their fair share of issues, but they aren’t just a team that relies on Bridges and Jackson
Bridges and Jackson dealt with foul trouble in the opening half and spent a good chunk of the first 20 minutes on the bench.
That would’ve been the recipe for North Carolina taking an early lead and controlling the early portion of the game.
Instead, Michigan State was dominating without their Player of the Year candidate and another potential lottery pick thanks to their supporting cast.
Langford was the best player on the court, knocking down shots from the perimeter and showing confidence when attacking the rim. Cassius Winston looked solid running the offense. And Ward was running the floor, finishing around the basket and using his length to his advantage.
Michigan State is a clear-cut National Title contender, but they still have turnover issues (24 on Sunday and 17 against Duke in the Champions Classic). They still only scored 63 points and are a work in progress offensively. Despite that, the Spartans have to be pleased with the result of this game and their trip to Portland, in general.